The Mind and Body Can Be Reset

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Early on a Friday morning a man in his forties came to my office. For the sake of this story his name is Tim. Tim moved across my office, sat in front of me on the brown couch, his long body slanted into the pillows, an ankle crossed on the knee of his other leg, foot bobbing up and down.

Smiling he said “I’m a happily married man, father to three, a son and two girls.” Said he and his wife had been arguing more over the last couple of months. “Ya, I know that I’ve been defensive, but she just doesn’t give me any credit for knowing anything when it comes to the kids. It’s like she thinks everything I do with them is mean and cruel.” As he talked the words frustrated, and worry dotted his sentences. “I’m concerned for my kids, they are seeing us fighting all the time. This is affecting them, right?” He asked.

He admitted to me that it was his wife who really wanted him to come and see me for what she thought would be “anger management.”

Tim is a personal injury attorney. Said he represents people who have been injured in accidents, things that probably could have been avoided if someone had been more conscientious. Asked Tim if he liked his job. “Ya”, he said, “if you like seeing a kid with their mom get hit by a car and never be able to have a normal life again.” Tim started to recount for me the years of being at his job, smiling while telling me that it was putting bread on the table, he really couldn’t complain. “But” as he tilted his head to the side, “Sometimes, it is hard to get some of the images I have seen out of my head.”

Tim began talking about his children, his two girls are five and seven, his son is ten. Tim told me that he worries about his kids being on their bikes while he is at work so he has now made a rule that no one is allowed to ride their bikes unless he is home to watch them. Tim said that he thinks his wife spaces out when watching the kids and will at times get lost in text messaging with her friends. In that second, cause it only takes a second, something could happen to his kids. “This is why we fight” he said. “She thinks I’m controlling, but she just doesn’t understand what I am seeing.”

“I don’t want to take my work home with me. I don’t talk with my wife about my job. I want to leave all of that at the office and come home and enjoy my family.” Tim said. “I admit I am feeling irritable no matter where I am and no matter what I am doing. I’m not sleeping well. Think this lack of sleep is causing issues with my ability to concentrate, my memory, my short temper, and headaches I have been having.” “There are times that it takes a real effort on my part to even be involved,” Tim said. “My wife complains that all I want to do is drink beer and watch football, but I do work hard during the week.”

He said to me,”Hey, I know I’m stressed out. It’s obvious that somethings going on. Just don’t think its all me.”

Tim was describing symptoms of trauma, possibly from what he had been exposed to at work.

At this point I had not taken a full history of Tim’s background to establish if Tim had experienced earlier traumas in his life in the form of developmental traumas or shock (or event) traumas. As being exposed to trauma will activate the body to earlier traumas a person has been exposed to.

Seemed to me that the many years on the job, seeing the cases that Tim has worked with, has affected Tim’s sense of safety in the world for him and his family. Tim’s body was being activated, as this is what happens with trauma.

Tim’s job had him witnessing and confronting events that felt life threatening to Tim. These events involved actual or threatened death, serious injury, or a threat to the physical integrity of others.

Tim’s responses involved intense fear, helplessness, and a sense of a lack of control in his own life and the life of his loved ones.

What Tim was telling me in session, and the symptoms that Tim talked about are classic indicators of trauma or posttraumatic stress. Often we think of posttraumatic stress as something that is reserved for soldiers. 

Posttraumatic Stress is the body’s natural response to alert us that we need to be aware of danger and be ready for fight or flight in order for survival. At times people will have a freeze response to trauma. The brain naturally remembers negative or the “bad” things that could happen in order to keep a person alive. The brain really has not changed significantly since we were nomadic living out in the wild. We needed to remember all potential danger to not be eaten by the tigers, the bears, or be killed in a natural disaster. Our bodies are still designed to protect and keep us and our off-spring alive in this manner.

We can see with his children, Tim is ready to go into fight. He wants to be there to protect them from any type of accident, mishap, or danger.

Posttraumatic Stress is a body reaction to what one is experiencing. Thus, Tim is having body a response due to his job:

The traumatic event is persistently re-experienced for Tim by distressing images and thoughts.

  • Tim might possibly be having distressing dreams causing difficulty sleeping.
  • Tim does not want to talk about his work after leaving his office. This is typical of someone who is in a job or situation that involves trauma; efforts are made to avoid thoughts, feelings, and conversations associated with the trauma.
  • Efforts to avoid activities, places, or people that arouse recollection of thoughts of trauma.
  • Tim explained feelings of detachment, having difficulty being involved with the family at times.
  • Tim explained in session that he is having difficulty sleeping.
  • He is feeling irritable, with outbursts of anger at times.
  • Tim is having difficulty concentrating.
  • Tim’s antenna is up - he has a sense of hypervigilance.


There are other symptoms of posttraumatic stress that Tim was not experiencing, thus I have not listed them here.

Elaine Miller-Karas, LCSW and Laurie Leitch, PhD, founders of Trauma Resiliency Model explain how trauma affects the body:

The nervous system regulates the activities of the body and mind.

The brain is part of the nervous system.

The brain has three parts:


  1. The Cortex, the higher “thinking” brain
  2. The Limbic area, the “emotional” brain
  3. The Survival brain, the “automatic” brain
  4. (and also):The endocrine system of the body


The Cortex or Thinking Brain is in charge of thinking, organizing behavior, thinking through to consequences, making choices in terms of what is right and what is wrong. This part of brain takes in information from the body’s senses and decides on actions. It is also the center for consciousness, intelligence, conceptual thinking, and personality.

The Limbic Area holds a critical part of the brain called the amygdala. The amygdala is the part of the brain that automatically evaluates what is safe and what is not safe. It is hard wired to remember anything that has threatened us so as to sound an alarm to protect us if it perceives danger. After stressful and/or traumatic events this appraisal system can become too active and it can sound an alarm even if there is no danger. This can cause the accelerator of the nervous system to get “stuck on high.” It can have a hard time telling the difference between what poses a danger and what is safe. In this system, cortisol can be activated over and over again, causing symptoms in the brain and body, that exhaust the endocrine system, affect memory, concentration and other body functions.

The survival brain goes into action when Tim perceives danger. This happens automatically without Tim even thinking. There is no way to be logical or think out of this. The survival brain goes into action to save your life or save the life of a loved one. Tim’s heart rate will go up, and his breathing will go faster. Chemicals will flood the brain giving Tim energy to run or fight. When faced with a perceived danger to life, physical injury, or witnessing a threat to the physical integrity of another, the human body goes into instinctual defensive responses.

The defense responses can be triggered as a result of traumatic events that have occurred in childhood or adulthood. So, if the alarm is sounded, the automatic, instinctual responses may be triggered to flight or flee even though there is no real danger. An example of this would be if Tim was with his children and they were at the beach, and one of his children wanted to go across the street to get a hamburger. Tim, unbeknown to his wife and children, is working on a case presently where a family was hit by car crossing the very same busy four lane street that his children want to cross. The images of the pictures Tim saw on his desk were already flashing up for him when they parked the car and he was hearing the passing cars whizzing by him while organizing his family to walk down to the beach. Tim is adamantly opposed to the family crossing the street, even at the street light in the cross walk. Tim is having a body response to the stimulation presented by the street itself.

The freeze response is when it seems like we can not fight or run away, the accelerator of our nervous system is on at the same time as the brake. You may not be able to move and everything seems like it is in slow motion (due to cortisol hitting the hippocampus area of the brain). This is an automatic response beyond our control. When people experience a “freeze” response, they may look calm on the outside but on the inside they are in a high level of stress. This is also known as the “1000 yard stare.” You might have seen a picture of a small child who has come out of natural disaster, eyes wide open, staring straight towards the photographer with spacey dewy quality to the eyes.

Our nervous system can get hijacked when there is no real threat. Our body and mind react as if there is, we call this a hijacking of Nervous System. Paying attention to sensations connected to being “stuck on high” or “stuck on low” are most important in shifting the awareness to sensations and creating resiliency.

For Tim there may be many emotionally charged memories leading him to become activated on “high” or “low” in his body. Emotionally charged memories are stored in the brain. Sounds, smells, pictures, body sensations, and emotions that a person experienced at the time of the event or when witnessing an event are what Robert Scaer (2007) calls “Capsules of Memory”. Internal cues can include rapid heart beat, tightness of the stomach, nausea, muscle tension, water coming up into the eyes.

This type of memory is not delineated by time and space. The event or witnessing of the the event may have happened more than 20 years ago, but is being experienced in the present moment. I have had people say to me, “thought I had worked on this already, but here it is again.” or "I never felt affected all the years I worked or time I was involved in ....., don't know why I am experiencing this now?"

For Tim and others learning to tell the difference between sensations in the body and how to calm and comfort on a body level will help intervene the hijacking of your nervous system. The nervous system can then bounce back.

The body and mind are resilient.

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